Cash management in local governments: an evaluation of local government money management policies and practices, and the constraints on the maximization of investment returns

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Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Decreasing revenues and the public's natural antipathy towards taxes have made cash management crucial to the financial health of any organization. Local government financial executives have become increasingly aware that cash is an asset that must be used wisely, unless it is to become a liability. Thus, there have emerged serious efforts by local government finance executives to maximize the utility of every dollar available to their jurisdictions: first, by influencing the availability of receipts while delaying the outflow of funds; second, by investing available funds in interest yielding securities until the funds are needed to meet legal commitments and obligations.

Although this perspective is easily stated, it is common knowledge that local jurisdictions encounter insurmountable obstacles in the effort to maximize the returns on their investments of temporarily idle funds. This study has evaluated local government cash management policies and practices with a view to identifying those factors militating against the efforts to achieve optimum returns on investments.

A cash management questionnaire supplemented with very elaborate personal and telephone interviews constituted the diagnostic tool that facilitated the collection of the data necessary to:

(a) develop an understanding of contemporary money management policies and practices in local governments;

(b) evaluate the effectiveness of these policies and practices;

(c) identify and describe the constraints that impede efforts to optimize investment returns in the public sector; and

(d) develop strategies that will enable local government finance executives to cope with the identified constraints.

The study found that local governments face three kinds of constraints in the attempt to maximize the return on their investments of financial assets. First, there are problems that are internal and peculiar to each local jurisdiction, such as inadequate resources: funds to invest and the skills to search for the right investment instruments under a given set of circumstances; second, there are legal and political constraints imposed by higher governments such as the requirement that public funds can only be invested in certain instruments, and the prescription that local governments do business with specified banks. In some jurisdictions, how much money should be deposited in each bank are also legislated. Third, there are constraints imposed by exogenous factors such as interest rates, minimum investment requirements and the naturation dates of investments.

The study also found that local finance executives try to achieve some social responsibility through a careful manipulation of their jurisdiction's cash management techniques. Given these factors, public institutions can not achieve maximum levels of return on investment; they can only achieve satisficing returns.